A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to review a 2-CD set of piano trios
on the CPO label, by Robert Kahn, a composer whose music was new to me at the time. Having then whetted my appetite, this new release on Toccata Classics – Chamber Music Volume One – seemed especially timely.
Kahn was born in Mannheim, the third of eight children in a family that was both artistically cultured, affluent and socially prominent. He learnt to play the piano at the age of eleven or twelve, as well as having some violin lessons for a few years. Later, while studying in Berlin and Munich, his composition teachers included Friedrich Kiel, Woldemar Bargiel and Joseph Rheinberger – all somewhat peripheral composers nowadays, but still probably better known than Kahn himself. It was the lessons he had from no less a personage than Brahms – who became a friend, too – that made the greatest impression on the young Kahn, rather than those he received at any conservatory. Indeed Brahms (1833-1897), and by association, Mendelssohn and Schumann, had the greatest effect on Kahn’s musical output and style. In his time Kahn was a popular composer in Germany, but, with the advent of the Nazi regime, due to his Jewish origins, his music immediately dropped from favour. In December 1938 he wrote to his pupil and friend, pianist Wilhelm Kempf: ‘Everyone familiar with the current situation has advised us unanimously, and with some urgency, to emigrate!’ The following month he and his wife left Germany for England, and settled in the village of Biddenden, not far from the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in the Weald of Kent. There he remained until his death in 1951.
The present CD features the composer’s three Violin Sonatas, recorded in chronological order. The first appeared in 1886, the second 1896, and the third 1906. This makes each work roughly contemporary with Brahms’s Second Violin Sonata, Richard Strauss’s ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, respectively.
As it says on the tin – or the back of the CD jewel case, to be more precise – (Kahn) …’produced a large body of gloriously attractive chamber music, expertly crafted and basically Brahmsian in style.’ That this might be so, from the composition date of the first Sonata above, would certainly not come as any great surprise. However, his three Violin Sonatas were written over a twenty-year period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. What made Kahn different from many of the prominent composers of the day – according to the excellent sleeve-note from Steffen Fahl, and translated into ‘real’ English by Alan Howe – was the fact that Kahn ‘demonstrated little desire to write music that was unusual, provocative, scandalous or of overwhelming power; instead he composed intelligent, vital music in the Romantic tradition which was his natural language’. In fact Robert Kahn did this so well that he had no need to break with tradition just for the sake of any claim to originality. While some other contemporary composers who deliberately kept on the ‘safe’ route were sometimes let down by the quality of the musical invention itself or their ability to demonstrate real spontaneous development, Kahn’s chamber output isn’t similarly blighted.
His Sonata No. 1 in G minor
was composed at the age of 21, and is one of the first of his larger works that clearly evidences his ability to combine the three-movement structure of a Romantic sonata with the spirit and inventiveness typical of a young virtuoso. The main theme of the first movement is motivic rather than purely melodic – full of rhythmic energy, and with more than a nodding acquaintance to an idea heard in the finale of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. By comparison the second theme is agreeably lyrical, allowing Kahn the means not only to imbue the first movement with great emotional variety, but also to generate real organic development from the terse opening material. The long phrases of the overtly-melodious second movement clearly result from Kahn’s early, and continuing success as a Lieder composer, with the violin so finely suited to mimicking the expressive capabilities of the human voice. The brisk finale, as energetic as it is scholarly, demonstrates that Kahn was prepared and able to look beyond the purely Brahmsian late-Romanticism that had been a major influence on the composer’s music. This was despite that fact that he never really felt the need to experiment further, or to try out some of the prevailing modernisms around at the start of the twentieth century.
In the Sonata No. 2 in A minor
, the opening ‘Allegro’ has clearly moved on from its predecessor in the First Sonata
, both in terms of harmony and chord progressions, as well as displaying at times a slightly more angular melodic line. It is now virtually joined to the glorious slow movement, by way of a short ‘Moderato’ link, before the highly-emotive ‘Adagio ma non troppo’ unfolds, with its soaring melodic violin cantilena. The finale was apparently described by German historian and musicologist Wilhelm Altmann, as a ‘kind of Bolero’, although while there is a vivid dance element in the writing here, suggested by the tempo indication ‘Allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco e poco capriccio’ (‘Not too lively, but with fire and whimsy’), there’s really more of a ‘polonaise’ feel than the slower ‘bolero’. Irrespective, the Second Sonata
picks up where the First Sonata
leaves off, and is just as passionate; more so even, than its predecessor of some ten years earlier.
In the ten years that followed Kahn’s Second Sonata
, the success of his musical and academic careers, his growing young family and also the loss of his parents and brother can all be seen to have a profound on his creative output, now with its greater maturity, musically and personally. This led to the composition of an important masterpiece among his chamber compositions – the Sonata No. 3 in E major
– his first violin sonata in a major key. Unlike the first two examples, the Third Sonata
also sees Kahn experimenting more with formal construction, rather than tweaking his musical language as might befit the early years of the twentieth century. He take the less usual step of starting with a slow movement, that here precedes a brisk ‘presto’. Beethoven had already done this with his two Sonatas ‘Quasi una fantasia’, Op 27, where he eschewed regular sonata-form design for their respective opening movements. The second movement is now a scherzo in conventional ternary form, contrasting a slightly more diffident trio, framed by two decidedly lighter-hearted outer sections. The finale again opens with an introductory slow ‘Adagio’ of quiet intensity, which leads direct into an ‘Allegro energico’, arguably one of the richest and most virtuosic sonata-movements in Kahn’s entire output. The ‘Adagio’ epilogue then recalls not the beginning of this third movement but that which began the Sonata as a whole, producing a similar understated effect at the close as Liszt’s monumental Piano Sonata, some fifty or so years earlier.
True, this is all overtly Romantic, heart-on-sleeve music, of which there is now a great proliferation, increasingly often from less-well-known and, in many cases, less-well-endowed composers, whose works seem to assail the new releases’ list almost every month, each with its own champion to argue its claim to apparent fame: the final page of the present sleeve note is ripe with suggestions for ‘More Romantic Chamber Music’ to audition – from composers like Algernon Ashton, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Friedrich Gernsheim or Arthur Hartmann.
Rather like wine, you really need a keen nose to sort the wheat from the chaff, and, once again Toccata Classics has come up with a winner in Robert Kahn, and his Three Violin Sonatas. If the first two don’t hook you straightaway, then the tremendous Third Sonata
should finally reel you in, now, perhaps, an emerging Kahn aficionado. The playing and recording are absolutely first-rate. Steffen Fahl’s sleeve-notes erudite and most informative – little surprise here, though, considering he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the life and works of Robert Kahn. They are also available online in German.
If this kind of emotionally-charged Romantic music is not really to your liking, then perhaps it’s probably better avoided. If you’re prepared to sit back, enjoy and let these three finely-crafted works wash over you, then this CD is for you.
I hope that Volume Two will appear before too long and, even if the piano trios have just been recorded on another label, Robert Kahn’s chamber-music output still includes piano quintets, string quartets, piano quartets and cello sonatas – certainly more than enough material for at least one or two more mouth-watering experiences.
Philip R Buttall